So Long Functionality: Designing Objects in the Tech Age

The form-follows-function principle that guided industrial design for the past 70 years is fast becoming obsolete.

Imagine a Fabergé egg fertilized by a monster truck, and you’ve got the genetic pool that spawned Gillette’s triple-blade M3Power, the world’s first vibrating razor. The surfaces of the handle have been worked over completely. Rubberized nodules, a fine metallic grid, and faux titanium ribbed like a flight case all tickle, grip, and graze my palm and fingers. It’s like an incredibly complicated handshake from a lecherous Freemason. Sensation here is as important as performance—the action of holding the razor has been designed as an intricate intimate experience. It feels like warships, performance cars, and power tools are within the stretch of my palm.

But my thrill at being on the bleeding edge of razor design has been somewhat dulled by the recent launch of Gillette’s Fusion Power—a five-blade shaver. It features an onboard microchip and a “Precision Trimmer” blade built into the back of the cartridge for shaping your designer facial-hair features.

The ludicrous intricacy of razors increases incessantly, as though the desire to innovate, improve, and remake the shaving experience will never end. But perhaps Gillette’s push to innovate is less about improvement and more about shifting units, grabbing market share, and selling to a saturated market. Perhaps what they pass off as innovation is really planned obsolescence. Like all bathroom products, the M3 has a rhetoric couched in scientific/functionalist language, a modern kind of baroque. The initial “problem” becomes buried under Gaussian layers of solutions, which themselves become thrills and sensations. The tiny object bristles with curlicue technical promise. Its need to demonstrate improvement and functionality is purely symbolic.

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It’s not only razors that display this hyperfunctionalist tendency. You can see it in products as diverse as moisturizers and mountain bikes, kitchenware and clothing. The traditional idea of functionalism is dissipating into a fog of features and add-ons, obscuring design’s sharp image of itself. Just as newspapers are published with roughly the same amount of content every day regardless of how much news has happened, design is iterated not because there is anything particularly new but because product cycles demand it. It’s a feedback loop that turns the Modernist mantra “Form follows function” into an earsplitting, incoherent howl: the sound of a profession realizing it has—accidentally and without noticing—inverted its most cherished beliefs.

How did it happen? How did honest, well-meaning design end up twisted out of all recognition? My guess is that it was sometime in the 1980s, when design flipped from socially responsible to socially mobile. Work wear became haute couture, lemon squeezers became sculptures, advertising became art, and warehouses became domestic spaces. At the same time the “high” design canon became commercialized. The history of twentieth-century design was cherry-picked from its original context and placed into a halogen-lit matte black movie set with a Sade soundtrack.

In a sense, connoisseurship destroyed the things it loved most by separating the rhetoric of design from its objects. It taught us to look at design selectively and rewrote the history of the discipline in its own image. Objects originally intended to liberate the working class became fetishized as consumer products and recontextualized into an era of information, marketing, and branding. This shift has left us rudderless; it has created a gap between the things we like and the reasons we like them. Perhaps Terence Conran has turned Corb and Mies into gimmicks. And if he has, is it any different from the way Gillette uses design?

Looking at the M3Power razor is like looking at the living end of the functionalist era. It is important to recognize that the context of design has changed, and out of this new context we are beginning to see new kinds of design. In Europe the most challenging design of last year was something small, green, and incredibly annoying. Crazy Frog, best known as a cell-phone ring tone, was a promotion in search of a product. It treated media like lily pads—hopping from one to another. Every hop saw it materialize into a different kind of product. It began life as an Internet meme—an audio clip on a Swedish adolescent’s Web site—and was picked up by a TV show. The sound spread via file sharing, and bloggers began attaching it to various animations and quizzes. Another Swede produced an animation of a froglike animal pretending to drive a motorbike to accompany the sound. The animation and the sound were licensed by ring-tone company Jamster, whose incessant promotion (May 2005 saw 73,716 advertisements across all U.K. television channels) led it to notoriety. From a ring tone it became a chart-topping single that kept Coldplay off the number-one spot. Then it scattered into a vast array of licensed merchandise: T-shirts, soft toys, computer games.

An anatomy of Crazy Frog would reveal its Frankenstein-like nature: part Toad of Toad Hall, part gremlin, and part audio alert—with a pulse of 1980s electro music, software guts, and a skin of pure marketing. Its design is a monstrous hybrid of the real to the virtual, the amateur to the corporate—all stitched together with a series of licensing deals. Strangest of all, it remains ambiguous whether Crazy Frog is an object or a logo, an advertisement or a product. Its use is not entirely clear either: solid function has become unexpectedly fluid, like mercury. Perhaps it’s this ambiguity that is Crazy Frog’s most striking quality, the thing that makes it feel different.

Crazy Frog is a long way from the authenticity and truth that designers have traditionally craved. These are sentiments that, for better or worse, seem very distant to early twenty-first-century culture. Traditionally design came from within the object: function expressed into form. Now design comes from the outside—because there are no insides anymore. A designer’s job once involved the careful arrangement of mechanics into a coherent object. Increasingly those machines are evaporating—leaving a concentrated residue of electronics and marketing in a box. The guts are miniaturizing, shrinking away from their wrapper, vanishing into discrete specializations. Design has become a kind of seamstress, patching together technology and software licenses. It’s the hooks, zips, and clips—the glue between hardware and software.

Consequently, objects are dematerializing into feelings and image: the click of an iPod scroll wheel, the clunk of a BMW door, the sheen on an Alessi kettle. These sensations are a kind of existential functionalism, closer to the feeling you get watching a movie or listening to a song. The traditional role of design has shrunk, but meanwhile its spectrum has widened. The cul-de-sac of form and function is unfolding into a broad horizon of possibility, a richness that is only just becoming visible. Contemporary design might now include plastic surgery, traffic-management systems, and the virtual manipulations of data—from the bone-sawing and bloodily “real” to the bureaucratically systematized “virtual.” Designers can no longer rely on the innate morality of materials or techniques—now so disparate that what can be considered “authentic” and “true” or even “better” is much harder to discern.

This means design is happening in the kinds of places where we’ve been educated not to look for it. Good design isn’t about making things work better anymore—because most stuff works pretty well. It’s about making you feel engaged with the present, allowing you to touch the moment—that elusive, slippery sensation of “now.” Back when form did follow function, Modernists singled out fashion as ephemeral, meaningless frippery. But ironically fashion is what creates meaning today. It allows us to see what “now” looks like and what “now” does—which explains why we need to keep on designing new kinds of chairs. Fashion is an at-tempt to make sense of ourselves in a complex world.

It might be easier to think of design as a form of cultural criticism, anthropology, or satire. Like science fiction, design looks toward the future, but more often than not it’s actually telling us about the present. Design objects sit between an individual’s intimate space and the wheels of global commerce. They work out a space that tells us where we are and what we’re thinking—the kinds of things you see and feel before you know. It’s here that new design can find its own kind of truth—in the place where it makes you feel mighty real. °

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